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MARCO MILLIONS AND O'NEILL'S VISION OF AMERICA PatrickSclunitt The 1920s saw a new generation of American writers come of age, a generation that found its voice most securely in the condemnation of America itself. Dos Passos, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Lewis--these and a host of other American literary artists severely criticised the shape of both American society and the American soul. Such criticism found its strongest media in this decade in the novel and the essay; poetry, represented by Pound and Eliot, criticized America primarily through its silence, the poets turning their back on the New World in their haste to retreat to the comforts, real or imagined, of the history and tradition of the Old. Novel, essay, poem--only in drama was the criticism of America not a general movement. Many of the prominent playwrights of this decade-typified by such writers as S.N. Behrman, Marc Connelly, Sidney Howard and George S. Kaufman--wrote slick and sophisticated entertainments that lacked the biting edge found in other kinds of American literature. Some of the less prominent playwrights of the period--Paul Green, John Howard Lawson and Elmer Rice stand as examples--found much to condemn in scenes of American life. But for the most part, American drama followed the path of Broadway commercialism that had been established in previous decades. The outstanding exception to this trend was, of course, Eugene O'Neill. O'Neill is often perceived as a playwright whose concerns lay primarily in the relatively narrow field of his own experience; his works, however, reflect not only the shaping forces of his personal history, but also-and often more significantly--the shaping forces of the broader history through which he lived, especially the history of his own country. It was not a history he viewed favorably; as Eric Bentley has written, O'Neill's plays are "a criticism of American life."1 Bentley's observation is especially true of MarcoMillions (1925). This play is one of O'Neill's most intense and explicit critiques of America, and one of the first times that the playwright laid out the specific ideas that were to appear throughout the rest of his work. It is one of O'Ncill's lesser-known works, the middle member of that group of O'Neill's plays from the 1920s 32 Patrick Schmitt that John Henry Raleigh termed "historical exotics"2--the other two being The Fountain (1922) and Lazams Laughed (1926). Like both of these other plays, Marco Millions is essentially a parable about the condition of America. Unlike either of the other exotics, however, there is no note of redemption in the play; it is a bitter Aristophanic comedy, a scathing and profound criticism of the American experience. The play is based on the "happy idea" of a fantastical retelling of the Marco Polo legend: the young Marco Polo travels from Venice to the court of Kublai, the Great Kaan, receives a governmental post from Kublai, invents paper money, discovers the uses of gunpowder for warfare, inadvertently causes the Kaan's granddaughter to fall in love with him (which brings about her death and the Kaan's despair), and finally returns home to Venice, rich with his millions and full of tales of the wonders of the East, but no wiser than when he left, decades before. Critical attention directed at Marco Millions has generally concerned itself with Marco Polo, the title character of the play. As with Sinclair Lewis's contemporaneous Babitt, O'Neill's play has been taken as a satirical attack on the avaricious American businessman, his unchecked acquisitive instinct, and his empty materialism. 3 But this description of Marco is not the whole of that character, nor is he the whole of the play. Rather, Marco Millions addresses broad aspects of American culture extending beyond O'Neill's condemnation of the character of Marco. Marco's journey is less about the distant events surrounding the Venetian traveler than it is O'Neill's explicit historical analogy to the American experience; as Marco and the other major characters fail to achieve wholeness, so too contemporary Americans, as far as O'Neill was concerned, failed to transcend the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 31-39
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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